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As Nelson Mandela suffered health crisis last week, many media outlets suggested that his passing could plunge South Africa into a new abyss of racial violence. Rodger Bosch / AFP
As Nelson Mandela suffered health crisis last week, many media outlets suggested that his passing could plunge South Africa into a new abyss of racial violence. Rodger Bosch / AFP

ANC's non-racial principles will live even after Mandela

Although the nation has many problems, the foundations of South Africa's historic achievement laid by Nelson Mandela will remain strong

Nelson Mandela lives, despite his latest illness and the ravages that a life of struggle and sacrifice have inflicted on his 94-year-old frame. But South Africans, and people all over the world who have looked to Mr Mandela for inspiration and leadership, know that his end will come soon.

Mr Mandela has set an example of uncompromising commitment to freedom, won by peaceful means where possible but by force of arms when necessary - while always recognising the moral and strategic obligation to open the hand of peace and reconciliation to the adversary.

Unfortunately, however, during his health crisis last week many media outlets suggested that his passing could plunge South Africa into a new abyss of racial violence.

This assumption is both ignorant and offensive.

For one thing, it has been well over a decade since Mr Mandela has had any instrumental role in his country's affairs. He retired from active politics in 1999 when, after five years as South Africa's first democratically elected president, he handed the office to his elected successor, Thabo Mbeki.

Mr Mandela made only rare public interventions in politics after that, and then only as a voice of moral authority on issues such as HIV-Aids and the US invasion of Iraq. Even in that capacity, he has been largely quiet for years. More's the pity; his guiding wisdom and moral authority have been sorely missed during the tragic drift by the African National Congress towards corrupt, directionless self-interest.

There's a lot wrong in South Africa today, but there is also a lot that remains inspiring about the country. True, Mr Mandela has been powerless to prevent the ANC morphing into a grotesque caricature of the movement he sacrificed so much to build. But his passing will in no way weaken the foundations of South Africa's historic achievement that he led.

Those who imply or suggest that the country will descend into an orgy of violent racial retribution the moment Mr Mandela takes his last breath reveal their own ignorance. Their misunderstanding is based on an enduring, deeply racist myth sometimes called "the Mandela miracle".

This myth portrays black South Africans as an enraged mob baying for the blood of their white compatriots as retribution for the decades of brutal racism under apartheid. The idea is that only the Gandhi-esque spirit of reconciliation shown by the courageous and charismatic Mr Mandela has restrained this black rage.

From this view flows the assumption that Mr Mandela's departure will let loose the demons that populated so many white imaginations in the apartheid era.

But it was white racists who always insisted that black people's freedom could come only at the expense of white people's well-being, and used that claim to rationalise keeping the majority of South Africans in bondage.

The freedom struggle led by Mr Mandela and others - the ANC was never a personality cult, remember - was rooted in the principle that, as the ANC's 1955 Freedom Charter put it, "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white no government shall justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people."

Since the early 1950s, the ANC had always welcomed white activists who were willing to commit themselves to its non-racial principles and the fight for justice and democratic majority rule. I know this because I was one of them.

Only a small minority of white South Africans ever joined the movement, but by the dawn of liberation, in 1990, literally thousands of us had played our small parts in the movement. Many had done jail time; a handful even paid with their lives.

This political culture, of black and white South Africans working for the common goal of a non-racial democracy, both shaped Nelson Mandela and was shaped by him.

The key point missed by believers in the "Mandela myth" is this: it was the non-racial political outlook and culture of the ANC that laid the foundations for the principled compromises and reconciliation policies adopted once the apartheid regime had conceded to a peaceful transition to democratic majority rule.

Mr Mandela's leadership in the transition away from apartheid was based on principles long established in his movement, not simply on his personal character. The ANC's rank and file followed his lead, and South Africans elected him president, precisely because they shared his vision and had long cherished it as their own.

That's why Madiba, as he is affectionately called, will go to his grave knowing that the founding principles for which he fought are safe.

South Africa today is a country with many problems, but it is also a non-racial democracy ruled by the majority.

The schisms that threaten in the coming years are not based on South Africans forgetting non-racialism after Mr Mandela's passing, but rather can be blamed on the ANC, in government, failing to deliver on its promises - Mr Mandela's promises - to the poor.

Some of those who talk the coded language of racial bloodbath after Mr Mandela may, in fact, really be worried about the spectre of a more urgent struggle against poverty and inequality.

It is no secret where Mr Mandela stood on that struggle: "Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural," he said in 2005. "It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings." Those words are still a challenge, for South Africa's wealthy white elites and for its ANC government alike.

Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @TonyKaron

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